This seasonal song, describing the days between Christmas and January 6th—the traditional day of the Epiphany (now celebrated in US Catholic dioceses the first Sunday following January 1st )—has been dismissed by many as a cheerful, nonsensical ditty. However, there’s plenty going on here…
For one thing, unlike most other popular songs, and surely unlike most songs as old as this one, there are frequent shifts between 4/4 and 3/4 time. For another, there is inconsistency in the lyrics for the last five days, as well as a misunderstanding of otherwise consistent lyrics for the fourth and fifth days.
Most scholars accept the version that appears in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes:
Twelve lords a-leaping, Eleven ladies dancing, Ten pipers piping, Nine drummers drumming, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five gold rings, Four colly birds, Three French hens, Two turtle dove, and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the fourth day, note that it is “colly” or (collie) birds, not “calling” birds. “Colly” means black as coal, and thus refers to blackbirds. As to the fifth day, the gold rings refer to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant, rather than to jewelry items, in keeping with the first seven gifts being birds.
Theological implications have been invoked for each of the days and numbers, as follows:
12—Points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed
9—Fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control)
8—Beatitudes: Blessed are… the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
7—Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
6—Days of creation
5—First five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch)
3—Theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity)
2—Testaments (Old and New)
In this context the “true love” is God’s love for us, or perhaps God the Father.
Persistent folklore insists that this was all code for oppressed Catholics to use in Protestant England as a memory aid, but clearly this makes no sense. The above points would be virtually undisputed between Catholics and Protestants! Moreover, how does knowing that there are two testaments give one any knowledge of what is contained in these works?
Additionally, various sources will cite different theological matters for the numbers: Five decades of the Rosary (which would be a sticking point with Protestants), three could be the Holy Trinity, and so forth. How can anything be “authentic” if there is no agreed upon edition? Still, even if the song were not a coded message for Catholics, the symbolism described could be accurate.
Since 1984, PNC bank has been calculating the costs of all the gifts in the song, including all repetitions, and this year’s total is $21,080.10, compared to the original 1984 total of $12,623.10. However, PNC’s list uses non-authoritative lyrics for the last four items—nine ladies dancing, ten lords-a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, twelve drummers drumming—and makes the “calling bird” mistake, thus using the price of canaries, and not blackbirds.
As to the literal meaning of the lyrics, we can only speculate as to the significance of the various gifts, as well as the order in which they are presented.
In the meantime, enjoy the song, and have a very Merry Christmas.